“A journey of the heart…Shah writes with sensuous passion” (The New York Times Book Review).
When Anna, a chef by profession, discovers she’s pregnant, she prepares to leave dreary London behind and move to idyllic Provence, France, with her husband, Tobias, and her lovable baby-to-be. But she’s suddenly forced to reevaluate her dreams when their baby is born less than perfect. Little do Anna and Tobias know that the change in plans sparked by Freya’s birth is the beginning of an incredible journey of the heart. Along the way, they discover that there truly is no such thing as a mouse-proof kitchen, and though life sometimes gets a little messy, it’s the messy bits that give it meaning.
The couple and their new daughter end up in a vermin-infested farmhouse in a remote town in France—far from the mansion in Provence they’d originally imagined. Their rickety home is falling down around them, the village is involved in a decades-old trauma, and even the charms of the region’s lavender fields and a budding romance between two of their young neighbors can’t distract from the fact that Freya’s hospital stays are becoming frighteningly frequent. Anna must draw on reserves of strength she never knew she had just to keep going from day to day. But will it be enough to keep her family together—and her daughter safe?
Told with “the most pitch-perfect, radiant prose” (New York Times bestselling author Marisa de los Santos), The Mouse-Proof Kitchen is a moving and thought-provoking story about how the best parts of life are often the most complicated.
The Mouse-Proof Kitchen December
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide forThe Mouse-Proof Kitchenincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
On what should have been the most joyous day of their lives, Anna and Tobias welcome a severely disabled daughter into the world. Their little Freya will mostly likely never walk, never talk—probably not even know who they are. Taking a leap of faith, they make the decision to leave London behind and start a new life for their family in a fixer-upper in the French countryside. The dramatic scenery, nutty neighbors, and persistent rodent problems are minor distractions compared with Freya’s fragile condition, and the limits of their love for their daughter—and each other—are being tested at every turn. Overwhelmed, unprepared, and terrified of what the future holds for both Freya and themselves, Anna and Tobias grapple with whether or not they are strong enough to love their child—or strong enough to give her up.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Very quickly after Freya‘s birth, Anna and Tobias realize that their “normal” lives have irrevocably changed. With all of the challenges the couple knows they will have to face, could you relate to their decision to uproot their lives to France? What would the benefits (or challenges) of staying in London have been?
2. “Don’t ever listen to a single word your mother says,” advises Tobias, “think about what she means.” (p. 20) Discuss this advice in terms of the relationship between Anna and her mother, and then as an overall theme throughout the book. Which characters say what they really mean, and which others hide the truth behind their words?
3. On page 130, Anna expresses her concern that she and Tobias may not love Freya, to which her husband responds, “Oh, Anna, you still don’t get it. . . . What if we do?” What do you make of his response? Whose fear did you relate to most?
4. Discuss the influence that Rose has over Anna. Why do you think Anna lets Rose’s influence impact her so easily, but has trouble with her own mother, Amelia? Describe the different images of motherhood that Rose, Amelia, and Anna represent. Which felt most familiar to you?
5. Anna and Tobias’s life in France is peopled by an array of truly quirky characters who helped to teach them about love, family, and letting go. Who do you think are the most important ones to bringing about the resolution of the story? Who are your favorites?
6. Anna and Tobias have their fair share of blow-ups. Characterize each character’s personality in the face of conflict. While the specific challenges of raising a disabled child may not be something you have directly experienced, were there other recurring tensions in their relationship that you did relate to?
7. Discuss Anna’s reaction to her affair with Julien. Do you think that she dealt with it appropriately? Should she have told Tobias, or do you agree that they had each been through enough?
8. Anna’s mother explains why she didn’t continue painting: “I suppose it was fear, dear. Once you’ve put something down on paper you’re categorizable. Until then, you just might be an undiscovered genius.” (p. 320) How does this differ from a fear of failure? Can you relate to this type of fear? Has there ever been something you’ve held yourself back from for this reason?
9. Discuss food and the way Shah positions food as an important theme throughout The Mouse-Proof Kitchen. How do we learn about the main characters through their approach to food? Consider Anna, Tobias, and Freya in your answer.
10. At the end of the book, Anna comes to an understanding about motherhood: “I think I’ve finally realized what makes you a mother. It’s nothing to do with whether your child is grown up or gone away or shares your genes or hates you or will even know your name. It’s about being connected.” (p. 333) Do you agree with this description of parenting? What would you say makes someone a mother?
11. “Imagine it’s the perfect Sunday morning. You’ve got tea in a silver pot, wholemeal toast and homemade jam and the newspapers. So, if you could have just the people you really love lazing around with you—who would you have in your bed?” Anna asks Tobias on p. 288. At first, the couple has very different ideas. By the end of the book, have they have come to agree? Who would you like in your bed on a lazy Sunday morning?
Enhance Your Book Club
Freya’s name is full of meaning for Anna. She describes it as “a nice old-fashioned name with a slightly New Age meaning: a Nordic goddess of love and birth.” (p. 5) Look up the meaning of your own name to share with your book club, or, if you have children, share any of the stories behind the names you chose for them.
As a film composer, Tobias is tasked with creating music to perfectly capture a scene. Have each member of your book club submit a song to create the perfect playlist for The Mouse-Proof Kitchen. You can divide the novel by chapters, or have each member pick songs that represent a character, scene, or theme. Try mixing in a little Edith Piaf, Brigitte Bardot, Serge Gainsbourg, or other French artists to really set the mood.
Bring a taste of the French countryside to your book club with these recipes from Rose’s notebook (and Anna’s helpful notes!).
Olive Tapenade 2 garlic cloves 4 anchovies in olive oil 30 green olives (ideally Lucques) without stones
Crush the garlic and anchovies together with a pestle and mortar, food processor, or blender. When mixture is smooth, blend in the olives until finely chopped. The tapenade may be jarred and kept for a month in a cool place. Serve with a little virgin olive oil de Nîmes and crusty bread.
Soupe à l’oignon doux de citou (Sweet Onion Soup) 5 sweet onions, finely diced (Anna’s note: This soup will also succeed with ordinary onions if sweet onions are unavailable.) 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock ¼ cup olive oil Salt and pepper to taste 4 slices stale bread ½ cup grated cheese, such as Gruyère
Bring the stock to boil in a large pot. Meanwhile, gently fry the diced onions in the oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet until they are dark gold. When they’re golden, add onion to the stock, along with salt and pepper, and simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Sprinkle the cheese onto the bread. Divide the soup into four ovenproof bowls, put the bread and cheese slices on top, and grill for five minutes under your oven’s broil setting. Serve immediately.
Cherry and Rose Jam 8 cups cherries, pitted 4 ½ cups sugar with pectin Juice of 1 lemon ½ cup rose petals (Anna’s note: We use petals from very small, fragrant roses. If you use large rose petals, chop them. Make sure you use fragrant ones.)
Boil cherries with sugar until they are at the “soft ball” stage. That is, when you put a drop of the warm syrup into a glass of cold water, the mixture forms a soft ball. Add rose petals and lemon juice and boil for precisely 4 ½ minutes more. Put into sterilizing jars and sterilize for 30 minutes.
Anna’s note: Will keep a year as long as the jar is closed. Once the jar is opened, jam will only keep a short time—about a month in a cool place. If you want the jam to keep without sterilizing, double the amount of sugar.
For more great recipes, visit EmilyBestlerBooks.com.
Saira Shah has won three Emmys for her films Unholy War, Beneath the Veil, and Death in Gaza. She has also written an autobiography, The Storyteller’s Daughter. Saira retired from filmmaking in 2003 and divides her time between the UK and France.
While I’m tempted to call THE MOUSE-PROOF KITCHEN an unflinching depiction of parenthood, that wouldn’t be right. It flinches plenty, just as it weeps, laughs, rages, despairs, and sings for joy—all in the most pitch-perfect, radiant prose. Read it. Just read it.
– Marisa de los Santos, New York Times bestselling author of Love Walked In, Belong to Me, and Falling Together
Portraying the complexities of marriage, motherhood, family, and life in a strange land, Shah...combines tragedy and humor into a satisfying tale of love, heartbreak, and transformation.
– Publishers Weekly
Hovering somewhere between chick-lit–ish comedy and heartbreak...[The Mouse-Proof Kitchen] touches deeper, less predictable notes.